Unfair Treatment at Work in the UK

By April Harrington.
22 Jun 2023

We would like to believe that nobody feels unfairly treated at work, but sadly, this is not the case and problems arise. It is important for you to track and resolve this as if it isn’t, can lead to discrimination cases and decreases workforce motivation or performance.

Because drops in performance can hurt your profits, you should do everything in your power to keep your staff performing. Some things are unavoidable, such as illness, but having a fairly treated workforce and working hours is something you can control.

Let’s look at what counts as unfair treatment, why it can lead to employment tribunals, employment rights, and how to handle unfair treatment at work in the right way.

a whiteboard saying unfair treatment with little people standing on piles of coins.

What is unfair treatment at work?

It is where individuals or systems treat an employee differently from others, for reasons not related to their job performance. A manager, peer or subordinate can treat certain employees or an employee unfavourably. This usually takes place in one of four ways:

  • Bullying
  • Discrimination
  • Harassment
  • Victimisation

It is important for employers to understand the difference here. Employees have different rights set out by the current employment laws, depending on what kind of unfair treatment they are receiving.

For example, whilst bullying at work is unacceptable, it is not illegal. It is important to see how employment law distinguishes them so you can best manage them.

Employment law and unfair treatment at Work

While all forms of unfair treatment at work are bad and you should address them, the ones that break the law are especially sensitive issues.

You should have measures in place to avoid this from happening and tackle these issues immediately, whilst remaining compliant with UK employment law.

Bullying is behaviour from a person or group that's unwanted and makes the employee feel uncomfortable. If this becomes harassment at work, it can become a legal issue.

This is because harassment is a form of discrimination in the workplace, which is illegal thanks to the Equality Act of 2010. By law, it's harassment when bullying or unwanted behaviour is about any of the protected characteristics, which are:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Sex
  • Gender reassignment
  • Disability
  • Religion or belief
  • Sexual orientation
  • Marriage or civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity

An employee being treated unfairly, a classic sign of work unfair treatment.

This can affect your finances because of employment tribunals. It also affects your reputation, meaning you won’t be able to attract desirable employees.

Consequences of Unfair Treatment at Work

But what if there are no direct financial ramifications? Ensuring the workplace is fair is still something you should focus on, as it has a lot of indirect effects on your finances.

When unfair treatment of other workers occurs, you can expect the employee’s morale and productivity levels to plummet. Academic studies have found that treating staff unfairly can drain them of energy and motivation.

There can be consequences if the bullying isn’t discriminatory, but it gets so bad that it results in the employee leaving their job. Here, they might have a case for constructive dismissal. This very stressful situation can cause an employment tribunal case, even if it wasn’t unlawful treatment.

With the rise of platforms like Glassdoor, it doesn’t take just a tribunal case to affect your reputation. Employees detailing their issues will seriously hinder your chances of hiring the best talent.

a businesses HR department talking about protected characteristic and the reasonable adjustments made to ensure that all staff are treated fairly.

Examples of being treated unfairly at work

Unfair treatment can take many forms, and many people can enact it. Let’s look at some example scenarios below:

  • Unfair treatment at work by a peer: spreading gossip or slander about the employee by their colleagues.
  • Unfair treatment at work by a supervisor: a manager could take a dislike to a particular employee and make their life difficult. This includes unfairly criticising their work or setting them menial tasks.
  • Unfair treatment at work by a subordinate: a staff member going over their head and having their work undermined even though they’re competent at their job.

If you can spot these before they become a formal policy issue, you can save a lot of trouble. Employees will also appreciate their employer looking out for their interests.

a lady being treated unfairly, and contemplating going to her line manager.

How to handle unfair treatment at work

First, let all staff know that you operate anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies. Put these policies in your staff handbook and make sure all staff get a copy of the employee handbook when they start. Whenever you update a policy, email the recent version to your teams.

Ensure employees know how to raise an issue regarding unfair treatment at work. Dealing with matters internally will cost less than tribunal claims.

Explain the procedures and reasonable steps you'll go through if you need to investigate a potential case of unfair treatment.

an person feeling disgruntled because they are being excluded.

Grievances and disciplinaries

A staff member may raise this informally. They are also within their right to raise a formal grievance against the line manager or someone they believe is treating them unfairly.

When an employee approaches you with a grievance, hold a hearing to work out the details of their own grievance procedure. Then investigate their claims and come to an outcome.

Follow a one-off incident up with a hearing and try to resolve the problem between the parties. The outcome might be that you give the offender a written warning. Or a final written warning if they've failed to improve their conduct after an initial warning.

Where you deem the unfair treatment to be gross misconduct, you might dismiss the employee. If unfairly dismissed, the employee can claim in an employment tribunal, so be careful and document every step of the process.

Lead by example

Your staff’s behaviour will often reflect your business. Ensure management and key employees behave in line with the values of your business. Their behaviour will rub off on the rest of your staff.

If they don’t follow your values, the rubbing off goes both ways and it will encourage unacceptable behaviour in your workforce. Make sure you pick the senior staff members who embody your values.

an employee happy that her statutory rights and protected characteristic is being respected and protected/

Expert support

Problems at work are often long and complicated. We can offer you up-to-date advice on the unfair treatment at work, the Acas code of practice, and guide you through the process of grievances. Call Croner on 0145 585 8132.


About the Author

April Harrington.

An experienced Senior Employment Law Consultant, who has worked for the group for over 9 years. April specialises in discrimination legislation. April has an extensive background in training, as well as recruitment and hospitality.

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